Last week Itad’s Claire Hughes and Emily Richardson attended ‘Pathways to a Gender Just World’ – a conference that brought together leading feminist academics and activists from around the world. Hosted by the Institute of Development Studies, the presenters and participants discussed the 9 years of research undertaken by the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment programme, and the way forward for gender equality.
Andrea Cornwall (the centre’s director) explained that the initial idea for their research proposal was rooted in a concern about the disconnect between tired global policy discussions on gender equality and the vibrancy of global women’s movements. In essence, the idea was to put the ‘power’ back into empowerment, looking at structures that serve to perpetuate inequalities. Unusually, for DFID supported research programmes such as this, the centre adopted an action research approach, where they learnt about what empowers by trialing different approaches. It’s easy to see the appeal of the approach, rich in life experience and described with much energy and enthusiasm by the presenters. As a result, the research centre has a wealth of learning and knowledge to share about ways of empowering women.
However, it appeared to fall short in three ways. Firstly, incredibly diverse interventions have been supported (although housed under four themes). This diversity may have hindered the development of insightful, programme-wide conclusions. There was lots of discussion about individual projects but few overall messages about what works emerged.
Secondly, opportunities to use some innovative methods for gender-just programmes seem to have been by-passed due to difficulties in measuring impact. For example, one idea was to use Nollywood to air programmes with gender equality messages. It was eventually rejected as it was assumed the results could not be measured. As M&E professionals, we know it’s not an easy task but it is no less difficult than evaluating some of the complex development interventions we regularly engage with. It would, for example, be possible to show whether and how the Nollywood programmes had affected the audience’s views on gender equality.
Thirdly, the research does not seem to have influenced international policy circles. This may have been a conscious decision on the part of the centre’s leaders, so that researchers involved could stay true to their principles and follow their research interests. However, the absence of funders, policy makers – and men – in the room was illuminating. Given the richness of their experience, one wonders whether this might have been a missed opportunity. There are so many players involved in the quest for gender equality. Perhaps if they could all find ways of communicating in a common language then we might progress further down the path for empowerment.